Julia Stiles went to South Carolina a month and a half ago and claims to have returned a changed woman. A straight-A student to Lindsay Lohan’s mean girl, Stiles spent an inordinate chunk of her early career in girl movies (10 Things I Hate About You, Save the Last Dance, The Prince & Me) playing the uptight smarty usually in need of a dressing down from some fine, fun-loving guy. And it wasn’t by accident. “It’s my personality,” she admits. “I’m a New Yorker. I’m guarded.” But this summer, while filming Gospel Hill with Danny Glover and Angela Bassett, about a town that can’t escape its racist past, Stiles says she finally “got over” her New York chill. “It’s true that people in the South are a lot more open. Strangers say hi to you! So I’ve kind of come back with a new perspective.”
Leisurely sipping Diet Coke in an East Village café whose maître d’ won’t stop staring at her—ads for The Bourne Ultimatum (she’s been in all three Bournes) are up and running on TV—Stiles does seem relaxed. She’s spent her day swimming at the Y and reading the Times. “I get it for the crossword puzzle,” she says. “But from Wednesday on, the crossword is like a lost cause for me, so I read some headlines instead.” Her (clearly air-dried) hair is lapping in untamed waves of blonde against her face. But could it be that this born-and-bred New Yorker has really started talking to strangers? “No!” she says, bursting into horror-tinged laughter. “Not to people on the street! But I smiled at the guy in the deli.”
At age 26, Stiles may have lived in this town too long to learn how to be extraneously nice. She was around when Soho was an industrial wasteland with just a few enterprising artists—including her mother, who makes ceramics, and father, an elementary-school teacher—raising their families in converted loft spaces. There was a chocolate-cherry factory around the corner pumping nauseatingly sweet-smelling goop from a truck every morning, and at lunch, ladies in blue bonnets would pour onto the streets for a break. Most intriguing to a little girl, there was a doll factory that left piles of defective dolls on the curb. “They had broken eyeballs and missing limbs,” says Stiles. “My mom was like, ‘Don’t touch them! They’re dirty!’ ”
At the soccer fields Stiles frequented along the East River, “we’d pick up dime bags and needles—well, you wouldn’t pick up the needles. You’d point to it and say, ‘There’s a needle,’ and a teacher would come over.”
You’d think that growing up surrounded by grit, not to mention getting your start at downtown’s La MaMa Theatre at age 11, might have led to some edgier movie choices, but for the most part, Stiles has managed to stay this side of the mainstream. She had that spate of “smart” teen movies, several of which were jazzed-up Shakespeare. She won some MTV Movie Awards and starred with Stockard Channing in The Business of Strangers and with a venerable Mamet ensemble in State and Main. A lust object for Ivy League freshmen, she became one herself, settling into Columbia as an English major in 2000, and purposely “kind of slowed down the momentum of my career.”
She wanted to experience living in dorms, she wanted to avoid being overexposed, she wanted to grow up on her own terms, and, after a while, she just wanted to graduate because she’d talked about college in so many interviews she didn’t want the public humiliation of not being able to finish what she started. Looking back, though, she says she’s realized “that the industry kind of develops crushes on actors, especially young actresses.” And while it shouldn’t have been that big a deal for a bookish 19-year-old to go to college, it seems pretty clear that by the time Stiles graduated, Hollywood had forgotten what to do with her. Her first big role post-school was in a laughably miscast remake of The Omen.
In many ways, the Bourne movies may be her catalyst out of a slump. Stiles admits that she was kind of gratuitous in the first movie, playing the young CIA assistant role that usually gets doled out to the newbie from Iowa with big boobs and glasses: “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I barely had anything to do.” The second installment was a tad better: At least she got a memorable scene where she wears a wiretap and is held at gunpoint by Bourne.
But from what little information we can glean about the third Bourne, all of Stiles’s gracious utility playing will have paid off. “The second one was about oil money,” she says, “and this one, I think it’s about terrorism and the fear that the big They with a capital T are coming to get you.” The movie has many scenes set in New York, but a full third of it focuses on her and Damon running through Morocco and Spain. (“We don’t really run together,” she clarifies. “He’s chasing the guys who are chasing me.”) She’ll do some choice emoting when her character is forced to do something morally reprehensible and debates leaving the CIA … only to find out that no one leaves the CIA. She has a scene where she drives a car from Madrid down to Africa. “Normally, they put you on a flatbed truck,” she says, “but I was actually driving a car, with the camera crew in the back seat and Matt in the passenger seat, and it was raining and we were driving all night until dawn. I was terrified! And I joked with Matt that I was a New York City driver, which was probably a bad idea. It didn’t really make him very confident.”
This Bourne was also the first film Stiles had done after having written and directed her first short film, Raving, starring Zooey Deschanel and Bill Irwin, about an intense encounter between a grifter and her prey on the streets of New York, and the experience made her “much more confident as an actress.” She learned to pay attention to lighting and camera angles, and to not overemote. The first thing she said to Bourne director Paul Greengrass when she got on set was, “I’m going to speak up a lot more this time, because the last time I sort of just came in and did what I was told.”
“I felt like there were a lot of unanswered questions about what my character was doing,” she says. “And I needed her to have a complete arc. I needed to have her not disappear.”